How and Why To Grow a Native Plant Garden

Updated: Jan. 16, 2024

Native plants are beneficial for wildlife and make your gardening life easier. Here's how easy it is to start a native plant garden.

We’ve been fixing up an old house in the high desert. It’s a harsh climate, and so I’ve been experimenting with the landscaping, testing what will stay alive even if the next owners neglect to water anything.

So far, the only plants that survived solely on the seven inches of rain we get each year are native bushes like sage, rabbitbrush and piñons, and native flowers like ironweed and Lewis flax.

Whatever plants are native to your area will also make great additions to your garden and yard. That’s partly because they take less water and maintenance, but also because they possess a superpower. They support all the other creatures in our yards by providing nectar and pollen for butterflies and bees, shelter for caterpillars and food for birds.

“With a greater desire for function and beauty in landscapes, people are turning to native plants, which look aesthetically pleasing yet serve a greater purpose in the ecosystem,” says Shubber Ali, a native plant expert and CEO of Garden for Wildlife.

Planting native is also trending. Laura Rost, Bee City USA and Bee Campus USA coordinator with the Xerces Society, says they’ve noticed an uptick in interest in their talks and webinars.

“Plant nurseries are also stocking more native plants and labeling pollinator-friendly plants, thanks to increased demand,” says Rost. “With decreases in biodiversity, people are starting to see their local ecosystems change and are wanting to help their native bee neighbors. Many of the native plants we love, native bees love too.”

Here’s why you might want a native plant garden, and how to get it going.

What Is a Native Plant?

Native plants are species that naturally occur in a particular region, ecosystem or habitat. The wildlife that evolved alongside them depends on them for food and shelter.

Many are host plants for caterpillars, the primary food for 96% of backyard birds. Some native bees need pollen from specific native plants to feed their young.

Native Plant Garden Benefits

If you’re concerned for wildlife, native trees should be the core of your gardening

Native plants are either perennials or reseed themselves naturally,” Ali says, “meaning you’ll enjoy their return every year while also cutting down on gardening work and saying goodbye to those high-maintenance annuals.”

The benefits of native plant gardens include:

  • They’re sustainable and environmentally friendly.
  • They require less water than non-native plants because they adapted to the local environment.
  • They flourish without fertilizers and probably won’t be weedy.
  • They require less mowing and leaf-blowing, saving time and money while reducing noise and air pollution.
  • They provide food, shelter and habitat for birds, butterflies and other wildlife.
  • They’re usually the best food sources of nectar and pollen for native pollinators and caterpillars, increasing biodiversity.
  • That biodiversity reduces the impact of invasive species and blights.
  • Each native garden provides an oasis of habitat in areas of human development.

“Research shows that wildlife habitat gardens can support 50% more wildlife than surrounding conventional landscapes,” says Ali. “Wildlife can appear within days or even moments after food, water, cover and places to raise their young are introduced to the space.”

How To Add Native Plants To Your Yard

Adding native plants to your yard can be easy if you take it easy.

“One of the most important things to remember is that you don’t have to do it all in one go,” says Rost. “Have a bigger plan, but do it bit by bit. Maybe you can start by shrinking your lawn by creating a new flower border or swapping plants in an existing one.”

Here’s how to start:

  • Research plant species native to your area by talking to the experts at local nurseries or consulting a native plant finder. This one from Garden for Wildlife lets you search by zip code.
  • Start with easy-to-grow species. Consider container gardening if you’re never tried growing anything before.
  • Determine your yard’s soil and light conditions and pick plants accordingly. Group plants with similar water and light needs together.
  • Choose an array of plants that bloom in different seasons, further supporting pollinators and biodiversity.
  • Incorporate a blend of native wildflowers, shrubs, berries and trees, to provide optimal shelter, food and biodiversity. “Bees love trees!” says Rost. “Add native trees and shrubs — they are like a pollinator meadow in the sky.”
  • Purchase native plants from nurseries or online. Make sure the sources avoid pesticides that harm bees. The Xerces Society offers this directory of places to buy native plants in your area.
  • After planting, mulch around them to retain moisture and suppress weeds.
  • Water native plants as needed until they’re established.
  • Incorporate other natural gardening techniques. Avoid pesticides, and let some fallen leaves stay on the ground as a natural fertilizer and habitat for overwintering bees and butterflies.

Native Plants To Try

Your options will depend on your region as well as your yard. Is it dry or wet, sunny or shaded, windy or sheltered? But in general, these are good choices:

  • Sunflowers;
  • Milkweed (be sure it’s native to your area);
  • Aster;
  • Goldenrod;
  • Coneflower;
  • Blazing star;
  • Crabapple;
  • Flowering currants;
  • Rhododendrons.

Also, here are a few suggestions by region:

  • Northeast: Eastern redbud, black-eyed Susan and switchgrass.
  • South: Longleaf pine; southern magnolia and yaupon holly.
  • Midwest: Big bluestem, purple coneflower and wild bergamot.
  • Pacific Northwest: Salal, Oregon grape and red flowering currant.
  • Southwest: Saguaro cactus, blue agave and creosote bush.

You can also visit the Xerces Society’s Pollinator Conservation Resource Center for more suggestions.

“This can be a community-building opportunity,” says Rost. “Put up a pollinator sign so neighbors know why your yard looks a bit wilder. Share advice, plant cuttings and seeds.” If you want to live more sustainably, then you should start your own sustainable permaculture garden.